Nestled in the far western tip of Switzerland, right on the border with France, there can be few more picturesque cities in Europe than Geneva. Serving as a base for the United Nations and its predecessor the League of Nations, the city is world-renowned for its banking district, chocolatiers and watchmakers. As locals stroll along the shores of Lake Léman, the Jet d’Eau fires up a spectacular cannon of water amongst a backdrop of Alpine views and characterful buildings.
It all seems extremely tranquil, but just on the outskirts, in the district of Lancy, lies an uncharacteristic cauldron of turmoil. The Stade de Genève is nothing out of the ordinary for Switzerland; a clean concrete and metal exterior with spectacular mountain vistas. Sitting alongside the main road to the French border, with a shopping centre adjacent, it is Servette FC who occupy such an arena.
The club was founded in 1890 as rugby team, making them one of the oldest professional sides in Switzerland, before opening a football department in 1900. Historically one of the biggest teams in the country, they joined the national league Serie A in its fourth season in 1900/01, capturing the first of their 17 national titles in 1907. They would also be responsible for organising the Coupes des Nations in 1930, seen by some a predecessor to the European Cup.
Servette would win the first unified title in 1933, finishing three points ahead of Grasshopper Zürich. Despite enjoying a largely unspectacular existence since, there would still be highs. The league was won back-to-back in 1961 and 1962, with two more titles arriving in 1979 and 1985. There were also four Swiss Cup triumphs between 1971 and 1984, alongside three victories in the short-lived Swiss League Cup, which is a record. For decades the club served as a footballing symbol for the entirety of Romandie, the French-speaking side of the country.
This is a badge of honour the club carried into the 1990s, when a team containing the likes of Oliver Neuville and Sonny Anderson would help reclaim the title in 1994. As the decade progressed, Servette would end as runners-up in the 1996 Swiss Cup, before finishing second in the league in 1998. They would then go one better the following year, before entering the new millennium by winning the Swiss Cup in 2001 under the tutelage of Lucien Favre. Unfortunately, this is still to date the club’s most recent major honour. Despite starting it well, the 21st century would be fraught with issues for Servette.
The problems began in 1996 when ageing French owner Paul-Annik Weiller encountered health problems. Weiller decided to sell his stake in January 1997 to TV company Canal+ – who wiped the estimated 17 million Swiss franc debt to save Servette from financial ruin – and businessman Didier Piguet.
Despite success on the pitch however, the Paris based company had an ulterior motive, selling up in October 2002 having not seen a sufficient amount of Swiss interest in their products. Meanwhile, Piguet would later end up in prison on fraud charges, as the club began a descend into chaos.
This forced the sale of young defender Philippe Senderos to Arsenal just to see out the season, with Servette living on borrowed time. Things went from bad to worse in late-February 2004 when they were purchased by former agent Marc Roger. The Frenchman bought 87 percent of the club for 1 franc, stating his grand plans to invest 5 million francs to pay off the outstanding €760,000 wage bill and any other debts.
The aim was to balance the books by the end of the 2005/06 season, signing Spanish and Portuguese players to encourage expat fans from the diverse local community, alongside setting up a productive youth academy in the mould of AJ Auxerre.
Unfortunately, following an encouraging third-place finish in the 2003/04 Super League, Roger relented. During the summer Servette signed 21 players, including striker Eric Hassli from Neuchâtel Xamax, Stéphane Ziani of Nantes and Le Mans right back Jean-Jacques Domoraud. There were also young Chilean duo Jean Beausejour and Jorge Valdivia, alongside French World Cup winner Christian Karembeu on an estimated 1-million-franc a year wage.
Three points were deducted for financial irregularities before the season even began, and things didn’t get much better upon kick-off. Heavy losses in the opening weeks to Thun, Aarau and Xamax indicated it would be a real struggle. Roger still believed in the reasonable pedigree of his squad, claiming the club were ready to bring down domestic powerhouses Basel. Nevertheless, his premonition failed to materialise and at the winter break, Servette sat a disappointing eighth.
These issues, however, pale into insignificance when compared to the problems away from the pitch. Rather than easing the financial burden, Roger’s recruitment had only served to add to it. On 13 December 2004, it was made public that 10 million francs would be needed for the club to survive the season. All hopes rested on former Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz, who Roger had persuaded to invest over 5 million francs. These efforts were in vain and, on 11 January 2005, the club filed for bankruptcy.
They say desperate times call for desperate measures; Roger appeared to take this proverb literally. In late January 2005, he decided to hold a press conference with inventor Joseph Ferrayé. Draped in a Servette scarf, the Lebanese claimed to have patented a method revolutionising the extinguishing of burning oil wells in the Gulf. He was seeking $5bn in compensation having had his techniques stolen and intended to invest around 17 SFr won from the case into Servette.
Unfortunately, nothing came of such a left-field solution, with harsh reality hitting home as Servette were given until 4 February 2005 to find a legitimate answer. This prompted Karembeu to give a cutting speech on behalf of the players and staff, speaking of a need for “solid guarantees”. In the wake of this, the players stopped training and threatened to quit, having not received any wages since October 2004. The deadline would, however, pass without resolution, as a court in Geneva declared Servette bankrupt.
Roger still persisted with his offerings of false hope, lodging an appeal on 8 February. This time he claimed to have a bank guarantee from a group of Syrian investors. Despite the understandable doubt, there was still hope. The remaining players agreed to waive their unpaid wages to keep the club alive, but just like Ferrayé, the Syrian conglomerate would disappear. Out of patience, the Swiss FA threw Servette out of the Super League.
The decision was one of immense significance for the club, who until that point had spent their entire 115-year history in the top flight and were the only side in Switzerland to have never been relegated. This was merely in the past now. Servette had to come to terms with restarting in the third tier, taking the place of their under-21 side in the First League. For a club who at the time were the nation’s second most successful side, the top amateur tier was to prove simply too easy as Servette secured promotion at the first attempt.
The second-tier Challenge League would live up to its name, with three mid-table finishes, and it took Servette five attempts to reach the top flight. This came in 2011 after a 3-2 aggregate win over Bellinzona in the promotion-relegation playoff. Servette would then enjoy a surprising first season back, finishing in fourth and gaining entry to the following season’s Europa League, where they would lose in the third qualifying round on away goals to Rosenborg. Sadly, such heights only served to mask the dark clouds of insanity that once again were gathering over the Alps.
In March 2012, Servette filed for bankruptcy for the second time in seven years. Responsible this time was Iranian Majid Pishyar, who had been in charge since 2008. The owner blamed the failure of investment from the Genevan government and local businesses, although it would later be discovered Pishyar had embezzled both for his own gain. Again it was a case of grand promises, with talk of Champions League glory and each squad member falsely assured a Porsche before the match with Bellinzona.
Pishyar would be replaced by a consortium headed by Montréal-born Hugo Quennac, president of Genève-Servette ice hockey team. Again Servette changed hands for a solitary franc, although this time they would survive after sufficient cuts were instigated. This had an effect on the playing staff, meaning the following season saw Servette finish bottom of the Super League.
Following this up with a fifth-place finish in the Challenge League, Servette would then go close to promotion in the 2014/15 season, sitting top until the fifth to last game. Unfortunately, losing an effective title decider in early May against Lugano perpetuated a dreadful end-of-season run that saw Servette lose their final three games. As if missing out on promotion was painful, following the conclusion of the season they would be relegated to the First Division for the second time in a decade.
In a case of déjà vu, on 2 June 2015, the Swiss Football League refused to grant Servette a licence for the upcoming season. Quennec claimed the reason this time were costs associated with the Stade de Genève, the third-largest stadium in Switzerland, with the annual rent from the local council failing to make sense financially. True to form, the bizarre situations continued, with CEO Julian Jenkins quitting to return home to Wales to pursue a career as a fortune-teller.
Quennec subsequently resigned, handing the club over to the 1890 Foundation, headed by Didier Fischer. A far more reserved and stable figure, the local businessman is well connected within Geneva, backed by several wealthy benefactors in his presidency. Now in far more stable hands, Servette would begin their rise once again.
A sole season would be required to get out of the First Division, before two third-place finishes back in the Challenge League. The dream of reaching the Super League would finally be realised in 2018/19 as Servette finished 15 points ahead of Aarau to gain promotion back after six seasons away.
Life in the top flight has started promisingly. Fischer’s connections have allowed for a healthy budget of 25 million francs, with a long-term vision of competing for the title. Unlike the lunacy of before, these claims seem to sit on far more solid foundations, with the president noted for his sustainable lifestyle.
Regardless of how the season ends, you can guarantee most fans would be happy to just stay up with as little fuss, on and off the pitch, as possible. After what has been a most turbulent decade-and-a-half, it’s what is needed. It has taken them a long time but like walkers on the nearby Salève mountain hoping for a view of Geneva, Servette are back at the top.
By James Kelly @jkell403